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A Mind in Line

The Labyrinth

by Saul Steinberg
New York Review Books, 271 pp., $39.95
The Line, 1959 by Saul Steinberg
Saul Steinberg: The Line (detail), 1959; a spread from Steinberg’s The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth, a collection of drawings Saul Steinberg made between 1954 and 1960, reached bookstores too late for the 1960 Christmas market. Its consequently dismal sales gave the forty-six-year-old artist his first dose of public indifference. A Romanian by birth who had found overnight success at cartooning in 1930s Milan, Steinberg had arrived in New York in 1942, preceded by a run of mailed-in work for The New Yorker that laid the ground for instant and enduring American acclaim. Irritated though he was by his book’s flat reception, he might really have been more in the mood to ponder a flop (which he said left him feeling “as flattered as Stendhal”) than to add another conventional success to his total. “I admire more and more people’s literary qualities,” he would write to his friend Aldo Buzzi in 1962. “I mean the possibility of recounting a fact or making a true and proper observation. Most people transform things that happen to them into things read in the newspaper. Those who don’t know how to tell things are scary.”

Among Steinberg’s eight published compilations, which begin with All in Line (1945) and end with The Discovery of America (1992), The Labyrinth is the thickest and most elegantly sequenced; its spreads are the most various and serenely confident in design. Its publication marked the end of a year of midlife (breakup of marriage, death of father, overturning of professional practices) that, by coinciding with the turnover in decades, 1950s for 1960s, kept the growing tumult of Steinberg’s life in sync with his times. On the book’s cover, a rabbit residing in the hollow head of a hawk-nosed mannequin-man peers out through an eyehole at dangers that are left unspecified.

The Labyrinth is the Steinberg book that was in the house when I was growing up in Fresno, California. I must have been about seven years old when I first opened it on my lap. Unlike the rest of my family I was not a natural reader; what absorbed me were drawing and studying pictures. I spent a lot of time seated at the end of the couch beside the shelf where The Labyrinth lived. Its neighbors were some thirty titles by Charles Addams, André François, Walt Kelly, Virgil Partch, Charles Schulz, and William Steig, from which I gradually learned to read. The New Yorker arrived at the house weekly, and I noticed, and saved, the Steinberg covers, which were coming at a steady pace in the early 1970s. But The Labyrinth claimed a special place in my attention.

Despite lacking text of any kind, this book told even a child that it was meant to be leafed through from start to finish. The momentum begins on the first page, where a draftsman is seen drawing a horizontal line that will, during its transit across seven pages, undergo mutations that make it a geometer’s X-axis, the waterline attaching a domed Venetian church to its reflection, a railway trestle, a roofline, and, finally, the first of many labyrinthine flourishes. The book introduced by that manifesto soon impressed me as unique, and it still does. The Labyrinth adds up to something—not a narrative but something authorial, more journal than story. Between its covers lives a mind making itself inhabitable—a mind, moreover, that has been around, a mind that is about things.

The book compelled me to make something of it. I knew that the books on all the other shelves on the wall, from Gulliver’s Travels to Fear of Flying, were about obscurely adult things, which I aspired to know, but the blocks of print on their pages always stopped me before I got very far. The Labyrinth pulled me into and through itself dozens of times, and it did not take many tours before I felt that I had come to share in the world that lived, uniquely, inside it. By the sole criterion of that feeling, I regard it as a novel—the first one that gave me a hint about how it might feel to have an adult mind.

What was this novel about? In my primitive way, I could tell it was about the complexity of the world, complexity proliferating in compound echelons: the variety of ways people talk, the pitfalls of heroism, what animals mean to people. The complexities parade by, independent yet inseparable, like all the possibilities that come folding out of that one horizontal line. What unifies the book’s variety, turning it all into an expression of thinking, is the line, unmistakably Steinberg’s own, that composes the images.

Printed in crisp, solid black on luscious matte paper, each page of The Labyrinth feels like a message coming direct from mind to hand and from paper to eye; Steinberg’s placidly imperfect pen line looks as immediate, as personal, as unpremeditated, and as written as the words in a private letter. That element of privacy was, to me, as seductive as the book’s grown-upness: the wordlessness of The Labyrinth makes it a world you can only enter on your own, not read aloud or recount. (This self-containment was perfectly matched by Inge Morath’s photograph of Steinberg on the dust jacket, in which he wears a homemade Steinberg mask.)

Though the author’s line lends the book a consistent texture, it does not reduce Steinberg’s many topics (bird-women, couples and families, motels, horse-racing) to a single language. His drawing hand performed its job of pictorial invention by constantly adapting itself—“stenographically,” as he said—in order to describe each subject he assigned it. The real action to watch for in The Labyrinth is the graphic reinvention that occurs as you round each corner of the maze (women in chairs, cats, visual puns). Steinberg, working at the peak of his powers, spins out at the speed of vision perfect linear formulas for epitomizing a camera-toting executive on vacation, a bootblack on a Spanish sidewalk, a train crossing Main Street on the Great Plains, and a subway’s cubically compacted straphangers. Such drawings taught me a concrete, thoroughly unintellectual lesson: style is content. Today, seeing the book from a few years beyond Steinberg’s own stage of midlife, I see his preoccupation with change-in-itself as that of a mind trying on miscellaneous futures.

Steinberg had begun changing his stripes that year, a process that would take a while. “I don’t have a clear idea of what I am or want to be,” he told Buzzi in 1965. “Husband? Painter? Old, young, uptown, downtown, man about town, hermit? Also: rich or poor?” In the year 1960, Steinberg separated from his wife, the artist Hedda Sterne (they never divorced and remained friends), picked up a German girlfriend half his age, moved into an apartment in the then new Washington Square Village, and began spending time at the house in Amagansett he had bought the year before. He was eager to break away from certain facets of his art, and of his public persona, that he had decided were not worth the struggle, or were beneath the dignity he had in mind for himself: specifically, mass-market magazine work, greeting cards, advertising, and murals.

Drawing of a woman sipping from a tea cup by Saul Steinberg
A drawing from Steinberg’s The Labyrinth

Henceforth, prolific cover work for The New Yorker would absorb all the color and playfulness he had been diverting into those efforts, while making up for the tidy annual income he had been deriving from them. He had been drawing for the magazine for nearly twenty years, but the two magnificent color allegories that serve as endpapers in The Labyrinth—“The Pursuit of Happiness” and “Ship of State”—were only the third and fifth covers he contributed. He went on to draw eighty more covers—as many as five a year—between 1960 and his death in 1999.

I count, in the pages of The Labyrinth—recently republished by New York Review Books—three recurrent and overlapping ways of understanding what a labyrinth is. First, a labyrinth is someplace where a hero has become lost or trapped, and must either do something about it or succumb. Second, a labyrinth is a type of linear construction: a diagram of involution that Steinberg exploits for its aptness in metaphorically picturing (among other things) confusion, bureaucracy, indecision, and self-doubt. Third, a labyrinth is the prototype for anything that proves to be vexingly complicated inside, be it a person, a life, a cube, a line of talk—or a book. Whatever else the title is doing, it is announcing what the book is.

If the labyrinth of the title describes life—not only Steinberg’s biography but “life” in an existentialist key (we live in a labyrinth)—then he seems to propose shape-shifting as the way to get through it. One of his principal subjects, from this moment on, was what the sociologist Erving Goffman called (in the title of a book that was published in the US in 1956) “the presentation of self in everyday life.” To recognize all social behavior as a masquerade was to turn the conceit of authenticity into a solemn joke. As the self-inquiry of a onetime European, spellbound by America in the hinge year 1960, The Labyrinth can be seen as a program guide to the comical war, or frightening game, between conformity and self-invention. In one spread, two bourgeois families are portrayed as haplessly locked-together ensembles, one in the idiom of cutout paper dolls, the other literally a square full of squares. Turn the page, and a squadron of frowning stick-figure hoodlums, united under the flag of “AARGH!!” and chanting “@#!?!,” march leftward (heading straight for those families) with handguns drawn.

The American highway system is another labyrinth that winds through the book, turning up landscapes, rearview-mirror self-portraits, and fleeting architectural impressions. Steinberg drew nourishment from the kinds of local detail that could be found only by flying to some hub in Mississippi or Kentucky, renting a car, and heading out on the back roads. The period since his previous book, The Passport (1954)—the period of the work reproduced in The Labyrinth—was a great one for literary road trips, notably those in Lolita (1955), On the Road (1957), and Rabbit, Run (1960). The first, French edition of Robert Frank’s photographic odyssey The Americans (1958) even featured a drawing by Steinberg on its cover—possibly a conciliatory gesture on the artist’s part. Steinberg had created a mural called The Americans for the US Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (elements of which appear on a few pages of The Labyrinth), and the publisher Robert Delpire sank considerable work and money into a projected book of the mural. Citing quality concerns, Steinberg abruptly aborted that project—but when Delpire requested cover art for a likewise-titled book by Frank, at the time not yet a well-known photographer, Steinberg obliged.

The longest section of the book records a journey farther afield—to wintertime Moscow and Samarkand in 1956 for The New Yorker—that Steinberg later recalled as “a trip for my nose, a voyage to the odors of Eastern Europe and my childhood.” For Steinberg, scent was the most introspective and soulful of the senses, and these spacious yet densely detailed line drawings still evoke their time and place with an intensity that melds the reality effects of a photograph and a diary. (In fact Steinberg composed many of the scenes out of details he had collected on the spot in photographs and notebooks, which are to be found among his papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale.)

Something about these images reached a boy in Fresno who did not know what places they portrayed, let alone what it may have meant for a Romanian Jew to have been there at that time. What did impress me was that the clarity of details in them, such as the set of the padded shoulders on a Soviet soldier’s greatcoat or the range of doodads salted around the bedroom of a Moscow bachelor reading Pravda in his pajamas, testified that the author had traveled somewhere specific, that he had breathed in the air in rooms, shops, lobbies, and avenues, and (I fantasized) had engaged in some kind of cloak-and-dagger activity, though he was too cool to let on about it. These were the first drawings by anyone that I remember feeling inspired to copy accurately—a task that gave me plenty of time to embroider stories that incorporated all the minuscule features I discovered in the process. (I remember evolving, on no basis at all, a plot in which the newspaper reader heads off and discovers secret rooms hidden behind a waterfall, as Tintin did in Peru.)

The enticing copy-ability of Steinberg’s USSR drawings left me feeling encouraged to go on and copy dozens more drawings throughout the book. The attempt taught me just how simple most of them were, line for line, despite their imaginative richness of effect—and yet, at the same time, how easy it was to get them completely wrong. And even more so, how hard it was to invent further drawings in the same vein. I was internalizing the distinctions between what a picture shows, how it shows it, and what it is about. Perhaps no better introduction to that particular labyrinth exists than Steinberg’s.